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Is Salvation by Grace and Faith...or is it by Ritual and Works?

Is Salvation by Grace and Faith...or is it by Ritual and Works?
Or ... how do all these factors come together?

Part One: The Place of Grace

By Dr. Bruce Atkinson
May 28, 2020

Salvation as a result of sacramental and other works associated with a church has been taught by the Roman Catholic Church and to a lesser degree by the Eastern Orthodox Church for more than a millennium. Traditionally it has been linked to infant baptism and transubstantiation. However, the Reformation leaders examined the scriptures like Bereans and pointed out the fallacy of this way of looking at salvation--which depends on human acts and rituals.

There are indeed outward signs (of an inward grace) which are proper and even commanded by God for us to do; there are expressive symbolic acts that indicate our own concordance with God's grace-- like water Baptism and the Eucharist (Holy Communion). These are the very personal and yet public expressions of faith by those called by God into His Kingdom. They are also acts of worship. But aside from the personal emotions of relief and freedom from punishment, and feelings of unity with God (not minor things), these ritual acts do not do much else. They do not cause one's salvation. Infant Baptism is only part one of the process which will later require Confirmation--an adult decision of faith. These rituals are human acts, not divine acts. Nothing we do can force God to do anything.

When a church and its leaders promote superstitious ritualized acts that supposedly insure benefits (manipulate blessings from God), then you know that there has been regression to pagan belief systems not unlike that which were common in the first and second century (e.g., the sacrificial mystery religions and the Gnostic dependency on secret words, philosophies, and rituals).

There are blessings for us when we contend against these regressive belief systems and against the liberal theologians who seek to surreptitiously slip them into our churches. I do not say that this is the Roman Catholic norm, but it continues to be very common. Likewise, the non-Catholic wealth and health gospel teachers who are popular these days have their own subtle forms of this terrible error.

Although Catholic clergy and theologians may use the word 'grace,' their view of salvation remains very synergistic and interposes the church as a necessary mediating requirement between the individual and God. This tendency places human works above God's grace.

Paul emphasized the truth that justification before God is by faith in Christ alone, while James emphasized the fact that genuine faith in Christ does necessarily produce good works. There is much in Paul's writing about the dangers of living by a legalistic works theology rather by than a faith/grace theology. Ephesians 2 provides powerful essential principles: "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them"? (Ephesians 2:8-10). Believers have been set up--for success!

Since it is God who prepares the good works in advance for us, how much credit will we get for our good works? If there is any credit, it is minimal. Hopefully, we are doing good works for His glory, anyway, not for our own. For as the parable of the vine and the branches (John 15) makes clear, we can do nothing of lasting worth unless it is God who is working through us.

Grace leads to faith which leads to good works. However, the reverse is not true because the intentions of the heart are what matter most to God, not outward appearances. But James was right; in essence he said that our words, our saying that we have faith is worthless... because faith is proved by how we live our lives (James 2:14-26). As Jesus said, "You will know the tree by its fruit" (Matthew 7:16, cf. Luke 6:43).

Note John 14:6: Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me." We come to the Father through Jesus Christ, not through the Church nor by any human activity. We Christians preach the gospel words of Jesus but it is the grace of God through His Word and the Holy Spirit who brings people to repentance and faith.

Repentance is both a command and a gift. God "commands all people everywhere to repent" (Acts 17:30). However, in Acts 11:18, we read that "to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life." And in 2 Timothy 2:25, Paul says that we must gently instruct those who oppose us in the hope that "God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth." So like conviction of sin (John 16:8) which leads to repentance, repentance itself is a gift provided by the Holy Spirit.

As Ephesians 2:8-9 passage above reveals, all believers have been given saving faith by God as the only means of salvation. Of course, other believers first told us about Christ or we read it in the Bible--"Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ" (Romans 10:17). Even when mediated by other people, faith is a gift from God, not something we work up for ourselves. So if our conviction of sin, repentance, and faith in Christ are all gifts of God, then we have no reason to be proud or to feel superior to others. But we have an abundance of reasons to be grateful to God. It is all about the grace and power of God-- "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide..." (John 15:16s). God first chooses us and then graciously calls us to Himself. Amazing grace!

The Church performs water baptism as commanded by Jesus, but this was to be a public sign and proclamation of what had already happened (faith and new birth by the Holy Spirit); it was never meant to force salvation on anyone. Prayer has power because God hears us and loves us and wants a personal intimate relationship with us. When we are "in the Spirit," God provides the content of our prayers and so of course also provides the answer ("... so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you." -- John 125:16b). But prayer cannot coerce God.

Is Grace Resistible?

I think we can agree that we humans, without saving grace, are all headed for destruction (what that means in detail constitutes another discussion entirely). And yes, nobody should boast of their salvation because they did not earn it, but anybody who truly accepts Christ's offer of salvation is not going to take credit, as they will be in awe of God's mercy and will be fully aware of their unworthiness. Likewise, any believer who says that they were chosen as one of God's elect before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4, cf. Romans 8:29), which of course is prior to their making a decision for Christ, will know that they have no reason to boast. In my experience Pelagianism (where humans are believed to be born good) tends to be interjected into salvation discussions as a 'bogeyman' but I've never yet met a mature Christian who says that he or she adheres to that philosophy. Our election was never about us, it was about God's creating each of us (in Christ) for His own private reasons and purposes. It remains a mystery and as we say in the Ozarks, "He ain't sayin'."

Someone said this about our response to God's gracious call: "We at least have that much responsibility." We indeed must respond to God. However, it appears that if Calvinism (not Calvin, by the way) is followed to its logical conclusion, we have no responsibility at all. This way of thinking is a bit extreme. On the other hand, Jesus proclaimed that we are sinners enslaved by sin. We are unable to choose right and make it stick.

Jesus and the Apostle Paul were both very clear that we all have desires of the heart (due to our fallen nature) that are not only dysfunctional and self-destructive but downright sinful (Matthew 15:19, Col 3:5, Romans 6:12). It is the battle between the fallen flesh and the Spirit of God within (Romans 7-8). They both cannot have their way; Jesus told us that we cannot serve more than one master. We have two clear options. Either we submit totally to Christ, who empowers us to withstand these temptations (1 Cor 10:13) and learn to become content regardless of our circumstances (Phil 4:12-13), growing in love, peace, joy and the other fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) ... or else we become re-entangled with the selfish flesh and the ways of the world, and thus are led by Satan instead of Christ. We know where that road leads.

"Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God." (Romans 8:5-8)

As Lesslie Newbigin put it, "We are by nature idolaters, constructing images of truth shaped by our own desires." John R. W. Stott reminded us of the reason: "The biblical doctrine of 'total depravity' means neither that all humans are equally depraved, nor that nobody is capable of any good, but rather that no part of any human person (mind, emotions, conscience, will, etc.) has remained untainted by the fall." Jesus Himself gave testimony about the human heart": "For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person." (Matthew 15:19-20a)

As the title to James R. Edwards book "The Divine Intruder: When God Breaks Into Your Life" expresses so well, we absolutely needed intervention from above.

"Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts..." (Hebrews 3:15, cf. Romans 10:17). We are asked to hear and to accept what we hear-- which hardly counts as 'works' as it is the Holy Spirit who causes us to be able to hear-- and this is the basis on which we are saved. Man's depravity is clearly so great that he cannot do this on his own; grace is evidently required for us to be able to hear in the depths of our hearts where it matters. And what God commands of His children He enables us to obey because He has changed our hearts so that we very much desire to obey.

Our whole western society (especially the radical liberal portion) believes the essential Pelagian heresy that we are born good (or at least neutral) and that all evil behavior is learned and society is at fault. Those who are deceived by this error deny "original sin." As a result, they promote the false idea that we are fully free... to believe in God or not.

For synergists (Arminians and most Catholics), it can be quite subtle. It is about believing humans can resist sin and choose the good--in their own power, and are thus not really enslaved by sin or inherently depraved. They think that we are able to take part in our own salvation by some inner quality of goodness (apart from God's grace, as if that were possible). Thus, these people always emphasize that it is not only grace but also something in us that leads to our choice to believe in Christ.

If Grace is resistible, it always begs the question, "Why do some resist and others do not?" The contemplation of this question always tempts people to ascribe some sort of personal merit to the choice. If I did not resist God's grace, was it because I am somehow better than those who did? Can I then rightfully be proud of my faith? Can I take some credit for my salvation? This is the inherent danger of Arminianism.

I love Romans 10:17 and find myself repeating it frequently, but I would emphasize that only through the word of Christ are we saved and even our own capacity to hear (as His lost sheep) is a gracious gift which we neither deserved nor created in ourselves. God knows His own and they cannot help but recognize His voice (John 10:27). His sheep, however lost, were always His chosen Elect, and they will be found. The parable reveals that the Good Shepherd goes to great lengths to find them (Matthew 18:12-14), and the church is privileged to help in this process as commanded in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). However, goats are not the same species as sheep and cannot become sheep (Matthew 25:21-33), and only God knows who is who.

Beginning Conclusions

I like bottom line conclusions. I have come to one very personal conclusion on this issue. Yes, at some point I willingly chose (and continue to willingly choose) Christ as my Savior, my Lord, and my very Life. But this choice has been entirely motivated and enabled by the Holy Spirit, who first brought me conviction of sin and repentance... and then I was enabled to choose Jesus and His salvation. It was all accomplished by the grace and will of God and my participation was a foregone conclusion. I had already been chosen by God.

The only reason that this gospel message of God's sovereignty and grace causes consternation to some Christians is due to their own fleshly ego which desires credit for their ultimate choice--and so they can feel superior to unbelievers.

However, I find immense comfort ('blessed assurance') in knowing that I was chosen by God and that no one can pluck me from His hand (John 10: 28-30), not even my own self. There is something ineffable and yet familiar to me (even supernaturally normal) about being "in Christ." This should be so since the Lord Jesus is eternal (pre-existing with the Father as confirmed by John 1:1-18 and Colossians 1:15-20). And now as a child of God in Christ, I know that I too am eternal-- but through no merit of my own. Jesus Christ gets all the glory.

Dr. Bruce Atkinson is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and an M.A. in theology. He also has an M.S. in research psychology from Illinois State U. and a B.A. from Beloit College. He is a member of the Anglican Church in North America and is Moderator and frequent contributor at VirtueOnline.

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